Criterion Cuts: “Salesman” and thoughts on documentaries

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s entry is actual a little light of things to talk about, so I’m probably only going to spend a little bit actually addressing the film itself and instead talk a bit about documentaries in general. I know that open-ended topics of discussion are a little outside the wheel house of this article, but it seemed the perfect place to talk a bit about the cinematic form of documentaries in the face of the new Oscar rules for docs that came to light earlier this week (this article being written on January 13).

The impact of the ruling probably won’t be fully seen for another year, and its potential impacts are a bit outside the scope of even this tangential article, but I can’t help but wonder about the relevance of documentary awards (and the idea of theatrical showing as an arbiter of eligibility) in today’s world. I think it’s fair to say most people now get most of their movies from various rental sources, be it on demand TV services attached to their pay cable or through a video provider, or the ubiquitous Netflix and its competitors.

While certainly a lot of movies have benefited (in terms of viewership, anyway, the revenue discussion is best left to people with more interest in number crunching than I) from these new avenues of digital distribution, I feel like documentaries have benefited most of all. Outside of Disney’s push in recent years to release a nature documentary every Earth Day, how many documentaries never see life outside of an art theater in the bigger cities with the screens to spare for them? I’ve seen maybe a dozen in the past two or three years, and that’s with concerted effort to go to most of them that show up in my (frankly, fortunate for this part of the country) city. I can’t imagine many people are as lucky, or as willing to give theatrical documentary-going a chance.

That said, I’ve seen a large number of people discovering documentaries through Netflix and other channels in ways I wouldn’t have expected before. Sure, the evidence is mostly anecdotal, but I know most of the people I know have seen Helvetica (as internet folk, we are all relatively snobbish about fonts), and many have delved into such diverse documentaries as Restrepo, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Senna, Page One, or Cave of Forgotten Dreams. That’s not even a comprehensive list, just me perusing the landing page of Netflix’s WI docs for things I’ve heard a bunch about lately.

Documentaries are in some ways the perfect on-demand entertainment. They’re rarely boring if you have any affinity for the subject being presented, they’re low investment with an emphasis on storytelling, and they entertain and educate. I truly believe people like learning things through story and cinema. Hell, Discovery and the History Channel are predicated on that assumption, to fairly solid success (discussions of quality of their shows notwithstanding). It is what you put on when you don’t know what to put on, rarely sought out but always there to rely upon.

I say this mainly because I feel insisting upon rewarding docs for the laborious process of getting a theatrical screening and getting a review by the two papers who suddenly become the gatekeepers of the form seems like a giant step back. That means either filmmakers who are already risking a lot by making documentaries have to struggle with these extra layers of frankly unnecessary politicking, or arguably the most famous award in cinema suddenly means little to the long-time relevance of any given documentary. Either way, everyone loses.

As a film fan, the best thing you can do is simply watch a lot of documentaries. There are an awful lot of good ones out there, about as diverse a group of subjects as a person could imagine. More than even fiction films, I find joy of discovery much more fulfilling in docs, a whole new world opened up where maybe I simply wasn’t interested before. Take chances, watch widely, and reap the rewards of broadened horizons. It is wondrously easier now than it has ever been before in the whole history of this crazy moving picture thing we’re all so into.

Salesman (1969)

I feel like I could just toss out a flippant ‘the real life Glengarry Glen Ross‘ and drop the proverbial mic. This does both movies a disservice, of course, but if you were at all interested in the broken-down desperation of the first half of that film I’m fairly certain that’s enough information to get you interesting in what Salesman has to offer. And if not, well, it’ll try anyway, stopping just short of barging into your home over your protests, because it has quite the deal for you just you wait let it bring out it’s sample box here and show you the latest and greatest.

Salesman follows four door-to-door representatives of the Mid-American Bible Company over a period of several months and several major American cities. Filmed by directors and brothers Albert and Robert Maysles, former salesmen themselves, the movie insists upon a vérité artificiality, with little to no reference to the documentary process itself. The cameras are there, but they are almost never remarked upon or spoken to by the subjects of the film. From the cold open to the sudden stop, it is a moment of time frozen under glass, presented without obvious comment.

But of course the idea of pure objectivism is impossible. It’s obvious that they shot hours and hours of footage, so tightly edited and compressed this movie is. In all that footage that didn’t make it, the things shown and not shown construct a statement all its own. And that statement, explicitly said or not, is at the heart of this film (or any documentary, really). In this case: the reality of American life and the slow embarrassing death of capitalism.

I throw that out there as if it’s a concrete, easily digested idea. But it deserves elaboration. I’m not talking, particularly, about the idea of capitalism or how it has affected our culture. Instead I’m talking about the machine it is, the impossible dream that swallows men and their ambitions up whole, spitting them out on the other side hollow and utterly used up.

Of the four men profiled by the film, the one Salesman spends the most time with is Paul “The Badger” Brennan, a man who used to make record numbers but now mostly collects stories of how people couldn’t possibly afford the large, elaborate bibles his company sells. We see the other men, most of them far younger and certainly hungrier, attend sales conferences and work on pitches and talk about their aspirations for riches. Brennan seems remote, driving from place to place singing “If I Were A Rich Man” as if it were part inspiration, part dirge. The other men listen to his stories and cast looks at each other, like he’s the embarrassing out of touch grandparent in the room.

The interesting thing isn’t this dichotomy between the young and the old, but how embarrassing and out of touch even the new breed of go-getters seems. Selling Bibles seems horribly old-fashioned, with their constant push of the new features of this year’s model like it was a vacuum cleaner. It’s no surprise, the commercialization of religion is as home grown american as the ramshackle houses and wary housewives in hair curlers that answer the door only to turn everyone away with paper-thin excuses. But it feels so ultimately pointless. For all their bluster, for the continual references to them being the new generation that will accomplish great things, it’s easy to see the future now (and I can’t imagine it was hard even then) where all these men end up similarly, burnt out suits full of discarded dreams and a quota that seems more and more impossible each time.

Which brings us around to the Glengarry Glen Ross issue. Even in the 90s, this story still worked and was still believable. Sure, bibles had become real estate, but the men and the mannerisms were the same. I don’t know to what extent Mamet was influenced by this when he wrote the original play, but there are scenes that are nearly identical in tone and intent if not language and specifics. But if this is truly universal, then how do these otherwise fast-thinking, sharply spoken men keep falling into this same inescapable trap of selling until they’re all sold out?

The legacy of this low-rent consumerism isn’t the peddling of potentially shoddy and ultimately overpriced objects on the greater public, but the high price paid by those who regularly engage in such a system. That’s the story of Salesman, of Glengarry Glen Ross, or of capitalism in general. The profits continue, the people are destroyed, and the world moves on.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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